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Society

Club House That has Stood the Test of Time

Sammy Kahama
Sammy Kahama Group director of Kahama, owners of K1 Klub House, Parklands Shade Hotel, Kahama Nairobi, Kahama Athi River and Kahama Mombasa. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG  

Before the brouhaha from the 1982 attempted coup had settled, government security forces showed up at the residence of James Kahama Mwangi in Eldoret and hauled him away in a Land Rover.

The three young sons he left behind — John Mwangi, Sammy Wakaina and Stephen Mwaura — tried to keep the family’s business, Kahama Bakery, running.

When he was released two months later, he packed his stuff and left for Nairobi with his first son, John, and purchased the Kenya International Hotel through a bank loan.

He shook up its soul, gave it a new heart and then renamed it Kahama Hotel. His second son, Sammy, stayed behind to tie the loose ends as the bakery wound down before he joined them in Nairobi in 1983. The Kahamas were done baking, ending a successful chapter with dough.

“When we started Kahama Hotel in the 80s, in entertainment the Jukebox was the thing,” Sammy chuckles.

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“So we focused on music, alcohol and nyama choma. It was a hit. We initially thought we would be in the hotel business but then based on the trends, we decided to take a stab at entertainment,” he says.

A few years later, Mzee Kahama took another loan and purchased Tree Shade Hotel on Nairobi’s Parklands, Ojijo Road, a struggling hotel built under an elegant tree, on a two-acre land.

Again, Mzee Kahama, waved his entrepreneurial wand at it (but leaving the tree standing) and K1 Klubhouse started with Sammy saddling it.

“We got a licence to operate after 11pm, got a live band going, brought in some pool tables before pool tables really became the rage and then for the last genius stroke, did away with entry fee. Clubs around hated us,” Sammy who is dreadlocked and youthful and could pass off as a pianist in a hit band in Mombasa laughs at the memory.

Pre-emptively, the logo of K1 Klubhouse was already an emoji years before the arrival of the Internet. It was of a yellow smiley sun (because is there a sad sun?) donning cool sunglasses, perhaps the future was so bright it was hurting its eyes.

“Steve who had been studying in the UK was back and together we ran K1 while John ran Kahama Hotel. My father was a decisive, hardworking and forward-thinking leader and he drove us hard. My God, he pushed us,” he says.

KI soon started theme nights at the club and that also did well.

In 2001, off the successes of the two businesses, they opened K2 on Nairobi’s Baricho Road, which also grew a life of its own until they closed it some years later when the lease ended.

As of today, they have 300 employees spread across their four hotel and entertainment businesses in Nairobi and in Mombasa and an estate estimated to be worth Sh2 billion.

K1 Klubhouse valued at an estimated Sh500 million has become one of the notable entertainment monuments like Carnivore and Mamba Village. Uber, the ride hailing company, recently released a report that showed Aga Khan Hospital and K1 Klubhouse as the top destinations of 2018.

One of their products, Pitcher and Butch showcases an unrivalled reggae nights on Thursdays, the mecca of the urban Rastafarians at heart.

They have a Round Box at K1, a space fashioned as a restaurant-cum-theatre with wooden chairs and tables, a balconied floor up, that hosts movies from a big screen on Mondays and football matches on days.

K1 Klub House off Ojijo Road

K1 Klub House off Ojijo Road, Parklands. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

When you ask Sammy to explain their invention, reinvention and longevity, he struggles with the explanation.

“What we are selling is actually so simple it will sound abstract and cliché,” he murmurs, staring at a spot on the floor.

“We sell happiness.”

Alas, the cool happy sun in sunglasses!

He leans forward, “with a million shillings anyone can open a pub and lower the price of beer,” he explains.

Mzee Kahama

“The question is how long can you keep it open? We try to have a business status where we pay our wait staff but on top of that, we give them commissions on their sale as an incentive. People make businesses, not chairs or TV screens or welcoming drinks, or happy hours. People!,” he says.

Family businesses also come with its share of spectacles.

Mzee Kahama succumbed to a long illness in 1998 and the sons took over operations of the businesses.

There has since been dirty linen flapping in public after reports of family wrangles in court on ownership of the estate.

Sammy does not want to dwell on this, he simply says, “the downside of family-run businesses is that not everybody will agree. There is always someone who wants to take a different direction, someone who feels that they are not favoured as the rest.

It’s normal if you have more than one sibling.”

He prefers to focus on the good side of running a family business instead.

“With a family business, unlike other forms of business, you can go to sleep when tired knowing that your sibling is going to stay up running it well. That for me is the biggest thing; trusting that if anyone will do it, my brother will,” he says.

“I also believe that my father opting to involve us in his bakery business very early in life helped us mature as businessmen and appreciate it for what it is.

I think things get hairy if you let your children in later in life. They will never appreciate the demands or character of that business and what has had to be done to get it where it is.”

Sammy opted not to go to a classroom to get a degree. Instead, he opted to earn his degree in the very trenches of business.

His father’s commitment to the socialisation of his sons in business was so overwhelming, he says, that when his brother finished his PhD in the UK, he opted to join his brothers in business back at home. (Stephen passed on last year). The family has four sisters who are pursuing other careers and businesses of their own.

We had ordered pan-fried liver and green vegetables which came presented in a calabash.

“We are jazzing up the menu,” he grins in explanation.

“Going back home to Africa.”

I ask him about the shareholding structure of the business.

K1 Klub House off Ojijo Road, Parklands. PHOTO

K1 Klub House off Ojijo Road, Parklands. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“We are five shareholders; my three brothers and my mum. But Steve, our brother died so his wife took his place as a shareholder,” he says.

“My father made a rule in 1986, that nobody really owns anything in the business. Have you watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and the Coke bottle that everybody was fighting for? That’s what he foresaw, so nobody really owns anything. Because when people start saying ‘this is mine’, everything crumbles down.

So as a rule, we plough what we make back into the business. But we all have salaries and decent benefits to take care of our families.

We have our shareholders meeting over lunch with my mum sitting at the head of table.

What we long decided, and this wisdom came from my father, is that as shareholders, we agreed not to start individual businesses out there because that would only distract us from what we are trying to build here. So all the businesses we own, we own together in an estate.”

He refers a lot to his father.

“My father used to tell us that we will not be millionaires, our children will,” he says.

“He would say, ‘this business is a loose nut, your job is to tighten it because if you don’t it falls apart.”

And so when tightened, what will their children do? He has three children, two of whom are already working in the business.

“They have to be responsible in growing it, not spending it,” he says.

What next?

K1 Klubhouse has been in business for decades, it has outlived market trends, the Internet came with social media, presidents took oath and left, other entertainment establishments have mushroomed around them and some have died yet K1 Klubhouse still stands stoic on Ojijo Road.

Which begs the question: what next, what is their next move?

“I think the question you are asking is when do you know that it’s time to reinvent yourself?” he poses.

“When do you know that it’s right time to swim now or you sink? Well, as a businessman you can’t afford to look away from the numbers. That’s where the story is, it’s your crystal ball. And if you keenly observe your numbers, you will know when you need to make a move, because numbers never lie.”

The numbers right now tell him that their next phase of entertainment is accommodation and they are currently sprucing up a 42-roomed Small World Country Club, in Athi River, framed by Lukenya mountain. And that is where he is headed after this interview.

An ardent biker, an outdoor junkie, Sammy climbs onto his monstrous 1,100cc motorbike and slaps his helmet visor shut.

“Oh! and you have to be passionate about this business to make it, man.” Off he trumpets, to sell more happiness.

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